How to Be an Effective ScrumMaster

7 February 2012

Elton Gao
Nokia Siemens Networks

Several weeks ago, I joined an online discussion about the key skills of an effective ScrumMaster. Everybody actively shared their experiences and thoughts. But I strongly felt that we were talking about the definition of a good ScrumMaster, not an effective one, which was the original topic.

This made me recall an experience I had last year. I'd joined a new project that was outsourced, and I worked with some external on-site guys. The project had been going for about six months when I joined one of the three Scrum teams involved. Soon I started hearing complaints voiced within my team and the others. The most popular grievances were: Scrum is nothing but another fancy process with a different command-and-control exterior. We could live better without those annoying spreadsheets and meetings. Don't call this Scrum.

Frankly, I didn't feel good in that environment of low morale and weak responsibility for the team's goal, and I decided to figure out what the problem was. After about two months of careful observation, I noticed that although management shared some of the responsibility, the main problem was in the team itself. The team was young and some members were new to Scrum. But this is normal in the initial phase for teams that decide to adopt Scrum. And the team had a good ScrumMaster, which is important.

What I mean by a good ScrumMaster is someone who knows Scrum well: understands the do's and don'ts and is familiar with related artifacts and tools. He or she knows how to run a daily Scrum, a planning/review/retrospective meeting, and how to take advantages of related tools and so on.

So what was wrong with this situation? Well, after five years of being with Scrum and three years of being a CSM, I would say that I've seen some good ScrumMasters who are trying to make sure that teams are using Scrum. They do their jobs carefully, according to Scrum rules, and they help their teammates get used to the Scrum process. This is great for a team at the beginning of adopting Scrum. But teams soon will hit the ceiling in terms of taking real advantage of Scrum and seeing its benefits.


Let me go back to the team I was on last year. We did indeed reach that ceiling after several months. We were still at the adaptation phase, where everything was carried out in its standard form. It was hard to go a step further. The team was told to adopt Scrum and people had an expectation that Scrum would improve software quality, improve their productivity, and give them more freedom by enabling self-organization. After getting used to this new way of working, they wanted more. Their belief and patience lessened little by little as they awaited those results, and meanwhile doubts and complaints were growing. I would describe the time that I joined the team this way: team's belief < 50% and doubts > 50% (belief + doubts = 100%). People didn't see the rewards, thus they lost their faith and the team was stuck.

Why? Because it was only doing Scrum.

Simply put: only good is not enough; effective is the goal. To be a good ScrumMaster is the first step, and to be effective should be the responsibility and even the duty for a ScrumMaster who really wants to take advantage of this method. An effective ScrumMaster, besides making Scrum run smoothly for the team, can also help the team go further in finding and growing its internal responsibility and productivity, and toward figuring out the most comfortable environment and way of working for itself. Staying at the surface and doing perfectly according to existing guidelines is not and should not be the ultimate goal of adopting Scrum. We need keep going further. We need to focus on the team itself.

So what is a good ScrumMaster, and how does one become an effective ScrumMaster? Below are points that I see as important for a good ScrumMaster:

  • Knows exactly what Scrum is and is not
  • Knows exactly what a ScrumMaster does and does not do
  • Has a strong sense of responsibility and high self-esteem
  • Has good teamwork skills

In a word, a good ScrumMaster is a nice person with fundamental Scrum knowledge.

However, in order to become an effective ScrumMaster, a person needs further qualities:

  • A high level of determination and persistence
    • This is a critical factor to success, since it's really hard to push the mind-set change for some teammates, never mind some entire organizations, especially at the transitional phase when many teams fail.
    • The ScrumMaster must be patient enough to help make the changes happen one by one, since it takes time and effort to see the positive trend appear.
  • An ability to root the ideal Scrum mode in one's mind, while performing it realistically within one's own organization
    • This is crucial to success, because no two companies are exactly the same.
    • It requires not selling an advanced way of working too aggressively, because more haste makes less speed.
    • Tailoring to a company's specific makeup is necesary at the beginning.
    • The ScrumMaster must carry out a long-term plan step by step, till the team itself can find its own effective way of working within the Scrum framework and mind-set.
  • A willingness to challenge and be challenged by others
    • Asking for help from higher up, in particular, is useful but often difficult.
    • The ScrumMaster must be able to hold his or her faith — in the process, in him or herself, and in both the team and the organization — steady.
  • A desire to continuously improve oneself
    • This is the key to influencing the team to look for the most effective way of working for itself, which is the ultimate goal.

Of course, we may want to add to that list. But everything we put on it comes down to one thing: being Scrum instead of simply doing Scrum. The honest truth is that it takes time and effort to transform our mind-set from doing Scrum to being Scrum. But that is what makes an effective ScrumMaster.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 5 (1 ratings)


Chia Wei Cheng, CSM, 2/7/2012 9:11:56 AM
I agree and I think an effective Scrum Master should also provides coaching to the team and individuals. Thanks for sharing.
Elton Gao, CSP,CSM, 2/12/2012 10:49:59 AM
Coaching and mentoring are key skills among others for a ScrumMaster. After team has adopted Scrum, leading the adaptation afterwards is vital for its success.
Anandamoy Pal, CSM, 2/12/2012 9:40:55 PM
I agree, coaching and mentoring is one of major differentiator for executing scrum.
Elinor Slomba, CSM, 3/9/2012 6:32:19 AM
As a consultant in the public sector, "Coach" is how I describe the Scrum Master role to an organization while I am orienting them to the Scrum way of working.
Cristian Aranda, CSM, 4/24/2012 3:28:21 PM
I think a key attribute is the constant discipline.
Charles Bradley - Scrum Coach, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 5/1/2012 3:50:02 PM

Nice article, and excellent points. I think you are being very generous when you describe "good" ScrumMasters. I would call them "mediocre" ScrumMasters. Most of the things you listed in the "effective" list are just versions of "removing impediments". You might check out the section on the ScrumMaster in the latest Scrum Guide -- it describes very much what you describe in your "effective" list. Here is the link:
Charles Bradley - Scrum Coach, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 5/1/2012 3:53:01 PM
Elton, another comment on this topic...When I see orgs who try to implement Scrum without a full time SM for each Scrum team, what I usually see is what you call "good" ScrumMasters(and I call mediocre). When I see orgs that fully support a full time SM, and when the SM is motivated to self improve (as you suggest), they generally turn into what you call "effective" ScrumMasters. The orgs need to make sure they're not shooting themselves in the foot by being penny wise and pound foolish.
Han van Loon, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 5/16/2012 5:55:59 AM
Elton, I like the article. Jeff Sutherland in his course talks about ShuHaRi and I would liken your good Scrum Master to the Shu state and progressing to the Ha state. The effective Scrum Master is approaching the Ri state - transcending the basics to find the 'best way'. In my own knowledge lifecycle model, your good Scrum Master is in the competent state, while the effectice Scrum Master is in the Expert state and may approach Mastery. If you want to look at the model, see:
Carlos Eduardo dos Santos Nunes, CSM, 5/30/2012 10:53:44 AM
Congratulations for the article! Focused on the correct points.
Sarbjit kaur, CSM, 6/8/2012 11:14:35 AM
I agree with you and I think an effective Scrum Master should also provides coaching to the team.
Lucia Calvi, CSM, 6/11/2012 9:24:58 AM
I fully agree and I think that these advices will be very preciuos to me, just starting my SM activity: I'll keep them in mind, to build me up to be an effective SM.
Kenneth Duffill, CSP,CSM, 7/13/2012 11:13:59 AM
Elton. An excellent article and I couldn't agree more. A scrum master who doesn't truly 'believe' (whether certified or not), and who doesn't constantly strive to improve personally and guide, mentor, coach the scrum team to improve themselves is never going to score highly on the effectiveness scale. Doing scrum (because the boss said so) is nowhere near enough. Embracing scrum, now that is something else. I also agree with Charles (who wouldn't) organisations that don't think the role of scrum master is significant enough to allocate a full time resource to it are seriously inhibiting their opportunities for truly startling improvements in performance and quality.
Henry Boland, PMP, CSM, CSM, 8/13/2012 2:56:06 PM
Wow! Nice article Elton. Good vs. Effective. An excellent contrast that speaks to the heart of the matter.
Bill Rinko-Gay, CSM, 9/11/2012 8:11:31 AM
I think the issue here is that Scrum is not a software development methodology, it's a management methodology. If you're focusing on Scrum, not on the software development, you're going to miss the mark. If you're using Scrum to focus on the software development, you'll succeed.
Venkata Kotam Raju Poranki, CSM, 9/18/2012 1:58:38 AM
Yes there is lot of difference between good Effective Scrum. I like this.
Dele Oluwole, CSP,CSM, 11/10/2012 2:35:36 AM
Whether good or effective all ScruuMasters are to coordinate the Scrum Team and remove bottlenecks daily during the sprint.
A good ScrumMaster is not good if he/she cannot coordinate the Scrum Team and remove bottlenecks daily in the sprint.
An effective ScrumMaster is not effective if he/she cannot coordinate the Scrum Team and remove bottlenecks daily in the sprint.

So, what exactly are you trying to achieve with this article except the use of superlative?

Dele Oluwole, CSP,CSM, 11/10/2012 2:37:50 AM
Whether good or effective all ScruMasters are to coordinate the Scrum Team and remove bottlenecks daily during the sprint.
A good ScrumMaster is not good if he/she cannot coordinate the Scrum Team and remove bottlenecks daily in the sprint.
An effective ScrumMaster is not effective if he/she cannot coordinate the Scrum Team and remove bottlenecks daily in the sprint.

So, what exactly are you trying to achieve with this article except the use of superlative?
Ganapati Siddheshwar, CSM, 11/28/2012 11:24:10 PM
This is an eye opener article.
Going by books is the ultimate choice for most of the professionals be it a PMP or CSM. However at the root of it one should be a leader before anything else.
Glen Wang, CSM, 5/14/2013 2:53:39 AM
Good - being Scrum instead of simply doing Scrum.
Parvinder Singh Arora, CSM, 9/16/2013 5:26:08 PM
Coming from a hardcore development background, it is quite a challenge to be an effective Scrum Master. Good article
Garima Bansal, CSM, 1/17/2014 5:27:33 AM
Thanks Charles.

I tried to access scrum guide, seems this link is not active
Sanni Babu Yegi, CSM, 4/11/2014 1:27:37 AM
Very nice article. I agree with you and I think an effective Scrum Master should also provides coaching to the team.

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